Oxford professor sues University after forced retirement

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Image Credit: Andrew Shiva (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A professor at Oxford was forced to retire in 2016 in order to promote diversity, an employment tribunal has been told.

John Pitcher, who specialised in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and was a fellow at St Johns College, was made to retire at the age of 67 despite wanting to work beyond the university’s self-imposed retirement age.

Professor Pitcher had worked for St Johns for 36 years, was set to retire at the end of September in 2016, but his fixed term contract from 2012 to 2020 mean that he assumed he would carry on working.

A default retirement age of 65 had been scrapped by the government in 2011, but institutions have since been allowed to set their own compulsory retirement age under the Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) policy if they can make a strong business case for doing so.

Cambridge is the only other major British university to have set a retirement age.

Professor Pitcher, having made an internal appeal against the retirement unsuccessfully, has now taken the college and university to an employment tribunal and is suing for lost earnings of over £100,000.

Two cases of forced retirement due to the ERJA have previously been appealed internally and won. Denis Galligan, a law professor, appealed his retirement at the age of 67 in 2014. Oxford University’s internal appeal court at the time criticised the EJRA, claiming it was only being used to pick and choose who to keep on. Peter Edwards, a professor of inorganic chemistry, was also allowed to keep his job at the age of 69, following an internal appeal.

In response to this, Professor Pitcher said that: “The EJRA for both the college and university which applied to me applied a retirement age of 67 years that retained the status quo from the mid-1980s. This age is far too low and I can see that I would be able to carry on working, as would many of my colleagues, well into my mid 70s.”

Having been told that he would be able to keep his job if he could convince his bosses that he was “indispensable” to the university, he added: “To be forced to reapply for my job by trying to satisfy an unreasonably high threshold test that I am virtually indispensable to the university when I had given decades of impeccable service is degrading and humiliating.”

Maggie Snowling, President of St John’s College, who made the decision for Professor Pitcher to retire, has claimed that: “The EJRA helped both the college and university take steps towards a more diverse academic body.”

Previous arguments from the university have claimed that junior academics will give up and look elsewhere for a job unless they can move up, and with many top posts being occupied by those older than 65, this may reduce the number of new and younger professors.